Behind Iran’s ‘Moderate’ New Leader: Hassan Rohani Unleashed Attacks On Pro Democracy Student Protesters In 1999. By Sohrab Ahmari

disillusionment with seemingly heroic new leaders promising change is a centuries-old theme in Iranian history.

So this is what democracy looks like in a theocratic dictatorship. Iran’s presidential campaign season kicked off last month when an unelected body of 12 Islamic jurists disqualified more than 600 candidates. Women were automatically out; so were Iranian Christians, Jews and even Sunni Muslims. The rest, including a former president, were purged for possessing insufficient revolutionary zeal. Eight regime loyalists made it onto the ballots. One emerged victorious on Saturday.

That man is Hassan Rohani, a 64-year-old cleric, former nuclear negotiator and security apparatchik. Western journalists quickly hailed the “moderate” and “reformist” Mr. Rohani. The New York Times’s Tehran correspondent couldn’t repress his election-night euphoria on Twitter: “Tonight the Islamic Republic rocks Rohani style.” A BBC correspondent gushed: “The reaction of the people showed how much they trusted the electoral system.” Just hours earlier the broadcaster had condemned Iranian security forces for threatening to assassinate a BBC Persian journalist in London, but such is the Western media’s hunger for good news from Tehran.

Turnout was high, with more than 70% of eligible voters casting ballots. That figure should be taken with a grain of salt, since voting is obligatory for many sectors of Iranian society. Still, some of the victory parties in Tehran and other cities did seem genuine, with voters taking to the streets to celebrate the end of a Mahmoud Ahmadinejad era that saw a rise in repression and in economic hardship caused by the regime’s mounting international isolation.

But disillusionment with seemingly heroic new leaders promising change is a centuries-old theme in Iranian history. The current regime’s theocratic structure—with a supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei, and numerous unaccountable bodies lording over popularly elected officials—will soon remind voters that this latest hero has little room to maneuver.

That is, if he’s inclined to seek change in the first place. The new Iranian president was born Hassan Feridon in 1948 in Iran’s Semnan province. He entered religious studies in Qom as a child but went on to earn a secular law degree from Tehran University in 1969.

Mr. Rohani spent Iran’s revolutionary days as a close companion of the Ayatollah Khomeini and would go on to hold top posts during the Islamic Republic’s first two decades in power. For 16 years starting in 1989, Mr. Rohani served as secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. During his tenure on the council, Mr. Rohani led the crackdown on a 1999 student uprising and helped the regime evade Western scrutiny of its nuclear-weapons program.

As Mr. Rohani said at a pro-regime rally in July 1999: “At dusk yesterday we received a decisive revolutionary order to crush mercilessly and monumentally any move of these opportunist elements wherever it may occur. From today our people shall witness how in the arena our law enforcement force . . . shall deal with these opportunists and riotous elements, if they simply dare to show their faces.”

The “opportunists and riotous elements” Mr. Rohani referred to were university students staging pro-democracy protests. His words at the time were widely viewed as a declaration of war, authorizing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the basij militia to unleash hell on Tehran’s campuses.

Reza Mohajerinejad was one of those students. A founder of the National Union of Iranian Students and Graduates in the 1990s, he resides today in the San Francisco Bay area. Speaking in a phone interview on Saturday, Mr. Mohajerinejad recalled how after Mr. Rohani’s statement in 1999 security forces “poured into the dorm rooms and murdered students right in front of our eyes.”

Mr. Mohajerinejad was arrested and detained for six months. Among other torture methods they used, his captors during this era of “reform” would tie him to a bed and whip his feet to a pulp. In between flogging sessions, the imprisoned students would be forced to run laps on their bloody feet or be suspended from their wrists for hours at a time.

“If we’re ever going to get freedom and democracy,” Mr. Mohajerinejad now says, “we’re not going to get them from Rouhani.”

Beyond Iran’s borders, Mr. Rohani has largely favored “resistance” and nuclear defiance. During the campaign, he boasted of how during his tenure as negotiator Iran didn’t suspend enrichment—on the contrary, “we completed the program.” And on Syria, expect Mr. Rohani to back the ruling establishment’s pro-Assad policy. “Syria has constantly been on the front line of fighting Zionism and this resistance must not be weakened,” he declared in January, according to the state-run Press TV.

These inconvenient facts from the Rohani dossier should give pause to those in Washington and Brussels eager to embrace this smiling mullah.

Mr. Ahmari is an assistant books editor at the Journal.

A version of this article appeared June 17, 2013, on page A17 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Behind Iran’s ‘Moderate’ New Leader.

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